Nine women participated in the first-ever Serengeti Girls Run in Tanzania

The first annual Serengeti Girls Run is the ultimate Girl Power experience: The all-women event raised funds for women living on the edges of the wildlife-filled Serengeti.

“You’re strong like a man,” said one of the young men to Elana Meyer, just minutes after she completed a 55-mile run through Tanzania’s lion-filled Serengeti.

He was a member of the wildlife antipoaching unit who had jogged next to Meyer, an Olympic medalist, during a three-day fund-raising run in the private, 350,000-acre Grumeti Reserve, clutching shotguns in their hands to protect the runners from possible wildlife encounters. Meyer found it particularly funny that she was being compared to a man in a race meant to empower women.

Meyer was part of a nine-woman crew that took part in the first-ever Serengeti Girls Run. The event was organized by Singita Grumeti Fund, a nonprofit group that carries out wildlife conservation and community development work on the Grumeti Reserve. This first multi-day, all-women long-distance run in the Serengeti raised funds for women’s empowerment programs in the villages surrounding the reserve. The Fund works closely with Singita, which manages the five luxury lodges and camps on the reserve, to offer experiences that connect guests with their conservation work. The run is part of a new series of trips called Safaris for a Purpose, which also included an elephant collaring project earlier this year.

A scene from the Grumeti Reserve, where the Serengeti Girls Run took place
The fund-raiser was born when Katherine Cunliffe, the Fund’s senior technical advisor for community outreach and sustainability, connected with India Baird, the founder of Brave, a nonprofit group based in South Africa that supports initiatives that encourage young female leaders on the African continent. Cunliffe and her colleague Beverly Burden, who both live on the edges of the reserve, often take fitness runs in the wild and wanted to find a way to open up their unique experience to guests. After talking to Baird, the women decided to turn their mutual love of running into a fund-raiser to benefit local young women.

The run supported a series of Girls’ Empowerment Events organized by the Singita Grumeti Fund that bring together girls from the 12 secondary schools that surround the reserve borders. The girls come from villages made up of subsistence farmers, where busy days, limited access to information, and cultural norms often prevent them from receiving advice not only on career opportunities, but on womanhood as well. The events, which reached 581 girls in 2017, cover everything from self-esteem and menstruation to female genital mutilation. That number doubled this year, thanks to the $35,000 of funds raised by the Serengeti Girls Run. It’s one of the many female-focused community projects, including enterprise scholarships and career fairs, that Cunliffe has developed since 2015, when she and her husband, Stephen Cunliffe, the executive director of Singita Grumeti Fund, first relocated to Tanzania from South Africa. 

Katherine Cunliffe participated in the inaugural race and described how exciting it was to run next to the enormous herds of wildebeest and zebra. “There’s something so powerful about being in nature and surrounded by something so much bigger than ourselves,” she said. “And you’re women, doing it together. That part is what made me want to cry and smile and laugh and everything, all at the same time.”
Serengeti Girls Run participants hopped back in their vehicle when predators were spotted too close to their course

On the morning of the third and final day, the nine women contemplated the 18-mile stretch ahead of them over coffee, porridge, fruit, and other carb-rich foods at Singita Explore, the mobile camp where they were based. Meyer and Baird had both taken spills that left them with scraped knees and elbows, and Marietta Alessi, the social media manager of Shape and Fitness magazines, was on the mend after a brief bout with dehydration. And everyone had woken up in the middle of the night because of nearby lions making contact calls. But the smiles on their faces that morning as they emerged from their tents belied their runners’ woes, and energetic chatter filled the camp.

Needless to say, running in the Serengeti offers a unique set of challenges. For starters, the terrain is uneven and the weather patterns unpredictable (during the short rains in October, the savanna can go from cool to scorching hot in a matter of minutes). There are also the wildlife encounters—the very reason why they had a shotgun-toting entourage from the reserve’s antipoaching unit. (The only victim, however, was the event’s bush ambulance: An ornery male buffalo charged straight into it).

A pre-run breakfast at Singita Explore
The runners started their third day across a river from the Great Migration. That day, not one, but two sets of lions had made themselves comfortable along their route. In one case, the lions moved off quickly when they heard the distant sound of running shoes hitting the ground. In another case, a pride that included a maneless male lion—a victim of many gender equality jokes at the finish line—didn’t budge, requiring the runners to hop into Singita Land Rovers to pass the area safely.

At the first watering station, Michelle Koen, a former Singita sales coordinator, arrived in tears. She had been recovering from a hip injury before the race, and knew, based on her discomfort, that she wouldn’t be able to push through for the final few miles. Fellow runner Rhonda Vetere put her arms around her. “Breathe,” said Vetere as Koen sobbed into her shoulder.

Not everyone in the group was as athletic as Vetere or Meyer, who offered both mental and physical support to their fellow runners, some of whom had never even run a half marathon. But Vetere, a New York City–based executive and athlete who trains competitively for Ironman races, explained that time and pacing were far from the point, even for her. Vetere went on her first-ever African safari at Singita Grumeti Reserve in June and was so moved by her experience at a local village that she returned only four months later—not only to raise money, but also to give a motivational talk to local girls while she was there.

“This is more than just a run to me,” said Vetere. “I came back to speak to kids, to give back, and to hopefully impact someone’s life.”
Rhonda Vetere and Michelle Koen, two runners who took part in the first annual Serengeti Girls Run

Meyer, to nobody’s surprise, was the first runner to pass beneath the white FINISH sign at the top of a hill, where she was greeted by a breeze and panoramic views of the savanna, where herds of elephants and wildebeest looked like ants on the horizon. The long-distance runner had become a national hero in South Africa when she took home a silver medal in 1992, the first year the country was admitted back into the Olympics after 30 years following the end of apartheid.

“I wouldn’t even describe this as a race,” Meyer said as she gazed out over the view and watched other runners begin to climb the summit. “It truly was an experience I’ll never forget. I love nature and conservation, and the empowerment of women, and it brings all of that together.”

Kabichi Suma, the senior-most member of the antipoaching special operations unit, had stayed by Meyer’s side for two of the three days, clocking more than 37 miles with her. Suma, who comes from Nyichoka, a village in the hills next to the park, said he felt proud to be a part of something that would benefit his own community.

article continues below ad


The finish line of the Serengeti Girls Run.

“It’s really great that this filters down into the schools,” he said in Swahili. “Especially from the physical side as well. A lot of people here like doing exercise, but there’s no meaning to it, and limited chance to get out there and do it. So that’s something that I hope will leave an impact on the community as well.”

Vetere, who had given her motivational talk to 400 local girls at a career fair in the village of Makundusi nearby the day before the race, also participated in a 2.4-mile Fun Run with those same girls. On the Fun Run, two of the girls came up to her and held her hands the whole way.

“As I’ve been running through the Serengeti, I’ve thought a lot about those girls, and how they seemed so inspired,” she said. “If I had a chance, I would do this all over again tomorrow.”

The women from the first annual Serengeti Girls Run share a post-event toast at Singita Explore

The second annual Serengeti Girls Run will take place from October 25 to 30, 2019 out of Singita Sabora Tented Camp, and the maximum number of participants is 18. For more information and updates on pricing, contact Beverly Burden at beverlyb@grumetifund.org.

>> Next: A Blind Man’s Trip Will Change the Way You Think About Safaris